the guardian, 22 June 2017
Tim Ashley
Verdi: Otello, Royal Opera House, London, 21. Juni 2017
Kaufmann thrills in a dark, expressionistic staging
In his role debut, Jonas Kaufmann’s arrestingly-sung Otello is a charismatic and troubled outsider in a production that can feel heavy-handed
Directed by Keith Warner, the Royal Opera’s new production of Verdi’s Otello marks Jonas Kaufmann’s long-awaited debut in the title role, one frequently regarded as a turning point in the careers of tenors who have tackled it. His interpretation will doubtless deepen over time, but this is already an accomplished portrayal, sung and acted, for the most part, with considerable intelligence.

Avoiding black makeup, his Otello is essentially a charismatic outsider, as much Byronic as Shakespearean, whose public and private personae are fatally at odds. We first see him hoisted over the crowd on the Cyprus dockside, glamorous in leathers, fearlessly commanding. In the love duet, however, he approaches Maria Agresta’s Desdemona with shy, almost naive adoration. As Marco Vratogna’s Iago plies his psychological poison, Kaufmann cracks slowly, revealing both lonely introversion and dark sexual obsessions. The scene in which he calls Desdemona a whore is disturbingly done as he pins her to a wall, forcing kisses upon her.

He sings most arrestingly. His voice rings comfortably through the opening Esultate. Elsewhere, we find hushed pianissimos and careful dynamic control. Dio Mi Potevi is beautifully contained, the emotional agony suggested by the ebb and flow of inflections rather than melodramatic declamation. In moments of fury, however, his tone can lack menace. The cries of “sangue” in the second act don’t bite as they might, though there’s no mistaking the thrill and power with which he launches the subsequent duet with Iago.

What surrounds him is variable. Warner’s staging is essentially expressionistic. Black walls open to reveal filigree screens that, in turn, create patterns suggesting the occlusion of Otello’s mind. Chorus gestures are stylised. Mindful, perhaps, that Verdi’s original working title for the work was “Iago”, Warner makes Vratogna a malign prime mover, who sets in motion the opening storm and sings his Credo as if to infernal spirits beneath the stage’s floor. In the second half, the symbolism turns heavy-handed, as graffitied walls reveal what’s going on in Otello’s head and the white-on-white design for Desdemona’s bedroom too obviously emphasises her innocence.

Vratogna impresses, but is inclined to snarl in places. Desdemona suits Agresta more than some of the other roles she has sung in London recently, though dramatically she can be disengaged. Antonio Pappano drives the score hard, without attaining anything like the cogency he achieved in 2012, in the final revival of the previous production. The choral singing is electric throughout.

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